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Joe Biden, St Augustine and Audlem

7th March 2021 @ 6:06am – by Anthony Pearson
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Audlem and District History Society

History Shorts 48 by Anthony Pearson

Joe Biden, St Augustine and Audlem

The media made much of Joe Biden's reference to St Augustine in his inauguration speech and while he chose to paraphrase some of the saint's ideas which were of particular relevance to the political situation in the USA today, it nevertheless reminded me of Audlem's own association with this 5th century Berber who became Bishop of Hippo in what is now Algeria in north Africa.

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Joe Biden launching his 2020 campaign Photo: Michael Stokes (CC BY 2.0)
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St Augustine in his study. Sandro Botticelli, 1494. Uffizi Gallery, Florence (Public Domain)

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In the early Middle Ages, a number of men's religious communities developed basing their 'charism' or particular ethos on the Rule for Communal Life developed by Augustine. The earliest Augustinian Order to develop and thrive in Britain was the Canons Regular, who differed from other monastic communities such as the Benedictines and Franciscans in not committing themselves to complete poverty in their communal life in abbeys or smaller priories, as they tended to the spiritual and pastoral needs of the surrounding towns and village.
The Priory of St Thomas the Martyr was founded around 1174 by a local burgess, Gerard fitz Brian, who brought some Augustinian canons from Darley Abbey in Derbyshire and provided them with a site in Stafford. This he held from the local bishop of the Diocese of Coventry and Lichfield, Richard Peche, who later resigned his see and took the habit of a regular canon himself.
The priory thrived over the following centuries, receiving many gifts of land, property and rights across an ever-widening area in Staffordshire and beyond, including some from several kings including Henry IV who stayed there before the battle of Shrewsbury in 1400. The priory even obtained the right to grant a papal indulgence to visitors who gave alms for its support.

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Converted outbuildings at St Thomas's Priory Farm incorporating masonry from the original St Thomas's Priory


In 1281, the energetically reforming Archbishop of Canterbury, John Pecham, during his visitation of the diocese of Coventry and Lichfield (there was no distinct Diocese of Chester at that time), discovered that Audlem had long been without a priest. He placed one of his own clerks here and subsequently granted the right to St Thomas Priory to appoint priests (known as avowdson) to serve Audlem. It remained in their gift until the Reformation, as we can observe from the large painted board at the western end of St James' church which records all previous incumbents.
Despite its possessions, the priory appears to have struggled financially, partly due to poor accounting and by being burdened with much almsgiving due to its position on the road to Stafford. Several visitations by the local bishops over the years also found that some of the canons were taking advantage of their lack of commitment to a vow of poverty by owning hunting dogs, wearing secular clothing and living in their prior's accommodation rather than the more spartan communal areas.
In 1536 when the dissolution of the priory seemed probable after Thomas Cromwell's visitation, the community attempted to stave off the inevitable by offering a payment of £133. 6s 8d, a whole year's income. In the event, they could not find that sum and in October 1538 the prior and five canons surrendered the priory and its possessions to the Crown.
The prior received an annual pension of £26 3s 4d (equivalent to about £1,000 today) and the other five canons received £5 or £6. The one canon who refused to acknowledge Henry as Supreme Head of the Church in England received a small gratuity but no pension. At least he was spared the fate of more prominent refusers elsewhere who were hung, drawn and quartered.
The Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, Rowland Lee, who had acknowledged Henry's supremacy, had already negotiated with Cromwell to buy most of the priory and its possessions, from the Crown, including the right to appoint priests to some local churches, in order to provide estates for his nephews.
Ex-Prior Whytell was given the living of Audlem church, so becoming its first Church of England vicar and remaining here for 18 years, adeptly surviving the religious changes of the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I.

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Record of incumbents of St James’ parish church, Audlem. Ex-Prior Whitell (sic) is listed about two thirds down the list, in the year 1539.

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